• September 4, 2015

Campus Security and the Specter of Mental-Health Profiling

Campus Security and the Specter of Mental-Health Profiling 1

Jon Krause for The Chronicle

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close Campus Security and the Specter of Mental-Health Profiling 1

Jon Krause for The Chronicle

Another shooting spree by a college student, another bout of soul-searching and agonizing in the media, and another call to ratchet up the psycho-security apparatus on campuses. In the wake of the shootings of Gabrielle Giffords and others by an apparently mentally ill young man who had been suspended from Pima Community College for his threatening demeanor and comments, college officials are sure to add to their already intense scrutiny of potentially violent students. Many institutions are constructing elaborate networks to detect such students and intervene before tragedy unfolds. In particular, mandatory evaluations (that is, involuntary visits to counselors or even psychiatric hospitals) are becoming a standard mechanism to enhance campus security. But do they make anyone safer? Or do they simply exacerbate the vulnerability of students who are considered unstable or mentally ill?

Jared Loughner, like the Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho and others before him, first attracted attention to his mental-health problems in a creative-writing class. Cho wrote several plays featuring extreme violence; Loughner read a disturbing poem called "Meathead" and laughed maniacally, and in another instance, he blurted out that babies should be attached to dynamite. There were similar inappropriate outbursts in mathematics and even gym class, and ominous signs on Facebook. The campus's department of public safety was engaged, and shortly after it reported to administrators on Loughner's disturbing worldview, Pima suspended him.

While Pima and Virginia Tech had different responses to the two shooters before they acted, both institutions have come under criticism for not doing enough to prevent the attacks. Pima sent a letter suspending Loughner and demanded that he produce a certificate from a mental-health professional stating that he was not dangerous. Loughner then voluntarily withdrew from the college. At Virginia Tech, in contrast, several professors tried to get Cho into counseling but were hampered by a policy of the school's counseling center that forbade "involuntary or ordered referrals." Nonetheless, both colleges have been criticized for failing to administer adequate psychological services to the shooters, or to steer them to a psychiatric hospital before they opened fire. That Pima is a low-cost community college with no on-campus mental-health center makes that judgment rather difficult to accept. But because of the Virginia Tech incident, it is now much easier to send risky or threaten­ing students against their will to such centers when they do exist, and in the wake of the Arizona shooting spree, we may expect that campuses will add more webbing to the psychiatric/law-enforcement net.

Since Virginia Tech, one of the biggest growth areas on college campuses has been "behavioral intervention teams," "threat assessment teams," and programs in "threat management," and even Pima Community College was in the process of developing a student behavior-assessment committee in the months leading up to the shooting in Tucson. The New York Times reports that more than half of the country's 4,500 colleges and universities already have some sort of threat-assessment team, and that percentage is sure to grow. And they are about to get very busy. Since Loughner was apprehended, a private clinic in Tucson that sees students for whom evaluation is required reports an uptick in involuntary appointments, already including one student from Pima.

Some of this upsurge is no doubt prompted by a genuine increase in students' threatening behavior and/or psychic stress—if reality can ever be cleanly separated from perception when we talk about mental health, that is. Distressed students, staff, and faculty may be experiencing genuine trauma as a result of the shootings, and some of them may exhibit behaviors that alarm classmates or colleagues. Contagion is not just a property of germs.

But part of the rise in required evaluations is the self-justifying growth of an apparatus that has not been proved to make anyone safer, and that may expose many students to harm. As Margaret Price makes clear in her book Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press), influential voices are arguing that we should try to get around the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act regulations, which protect the privacy of student education records, in order to monitor and sequester potentially "dangerous" students. On January 19, for example, a state representative in South Carolina introduced legislation that would require colleges and universities to turn over to the local police any files and records pertaining to students who are expelled for disruptive or antisocial behavior.

Who speaks for the student who is sent involuntarily to a counseling center, who gets a visit from the campus threat-management team, who is strong-armed into a psychiatric hospital? The case for such intervention looks unassailable when we work backward from Jared Loughner and Seung-Hui Cho, but what if we worked backward from every other case in which a student is swept up in this new campus surveillance? How are particular people in particular institutions determining which sorts of behavior are threatening and which are merely odd? And what are the factors—institutional, cultural, legal—that lead to these determinations? Are we witnessing a new sort of mental-health profiling analogous to the racial profiling that has become the subject of such controversy?

While looking back on these cases, we must work forward to consider all of our alternatives. Sociologists, psychologists, and administrators should track what happens to students who receive unwanted counseling, treatment, drugs, hospitalization. A longitudinal study would determine what sorts of consequences these sudden interventions have on the lives of students. Loughner's case will receive Talmudic scrutiny—and rightly so. It will give birth to a thousand reports, recommendations, and "action plans." The millions of other students—especially those whose lives will be directly affected by such plans—deserve the same attention.

Benjamin Reiss is a professor of English and director of graduate studies at Emory University. His book, Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture, was published in 2008 by the University of Chicago Press.


1. renaissancehombre - January 31, 2011 at 10:53 am

Why not simply make having a psychiatric evaluation a requirement for purchasing a hand gun and a requirment for purchasing ammunition? It is only when crazy individuals get their hands on guns that they become a serious threat to society. Meanwhile we should not expect those who sell firearms or ammuntion to be psychological evaluation experts.

The cost of going through a psychiatric evaluation to obtain a necessary license for a gun or ammunition could just be part of the cost paid be the consumer, along with successful compeltion of a course on gun safety, perhaps.

There is no need to engage in widespread psychiatric evaluation of people who are smart enough not to need a hand gun. Whereas the mere desire to purchase a handgun seems reasonable grounds to question a person's sanity.

2. pkbrandon - January 31, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Problem is that psychiatric evaluation is not very reliable.
The large number of false positives would make this requirement constitutionally unacceptable.
If in fact "the mere desire to purchase a handgun seems reasonable grounds to question a person's sanity", then the logical conclusion is that there is no sane reason to purchase a handgun, and so that purchase should be legally restricted.

3. sivachok - January 31, 2011 at 03:08 pm

Thank you. Your tone suggests, at least feebly, that such intrusion into the privacy of such people as Loughner is more harmful than the danger to the lives of a judge or a congresswoman.

4. nebo113 - January 31, 2011 at 06:52 pm

Sivachok....And you sound as if you want the gulag for anyone who doesn't think like you.

5. 11891758 - January 31, 2011 at 08:34 pm

We cannot assume that all people who seek to hurt others will do so with a gun. Loughner could have used the method of Tim McVey and accomplished as much or more damage than Loughner did with his gun.

Giffords' event was held outside. It would not have been so impossible that Loughner could have created a bomb, put it in a vehicle and parked the vehicle early at the location of the meeting. (This article mentions that Loughner thought babies should be attached to dynamite. He must have thought about explosive power.)

No matter what the colleges did or tried to do with possible dangerous individuals, I believe that until the individual person has hurt himself or herself or someone else, law enforcement and the judicial system will not do anything. A possible threat is not good enough; a person has to do bodily harm to someone. In some places that harm almost has to take place in front of a law enforcement officer, too.

6. margaretprice - January 31, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Research in a range of disciplines (including psychology, psychiatry and sociology) shows that there is at best a weak link between diagnosed mental illness and violence toward others.

Much stronger factors include being white, male, and young.

_Psychiatric Services_ did a special issue on this a couple of years ago ... here's a review of empirical research: http://ps.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/abstract/ps;59/2/153

Point being, yes, traumatic violent events are important to consider. Guns, trauma, campus life, social injustice ... these topics all need much more attention. But these events should not serve as excuses to further stigmatize an already deeply stigmatized group.

7. gnjones - January 31, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Is it really so clear that just because, years down the road, Loughner engaged in an act of clear violence, he was already or even (in the short-term) *potentially* violent back in his Pima CC days? For the most part the stigmatizing claims of Loughner's classmates (psychosis/madness/ununderstandable behavior = violence) have gone completely unquestioned in the public and academic media and the possibility that his experiences of rejection at college may in fact have contributed to or even resulted in (rather than indicated) his later violence gone largely unquestioned.

Meanwhile, as Reiss points out, too few are stopping to consider the point of view of the hundreds or thousands of students who might, if policies such as those described above are in fact enacted and institutionalized, be subjected to psychologically (if not physically) violent "interventions" and "referrals."

8. kjmitch - February 01, 2011 at 07:13 am

What no one has addressed is the faculty member who is unstable and/or mentally ill. Even worse, one who is tenured. He is constantly being diffused and his outbursts are never spoken of after they occur. Everyone hopes that his next outburst is not THE one where something bad happens. Any advice?

9. tappat - February 01, 2011 at 08:21 am

Why not make mental and physical health care readily available for everyone? Why not stop going to such lengths that we collectively go to in order to create a for-profit market for health care and instead spend that energy and set of resources to provide health care the way we provide more and more roads for individuals to drive individual cars on? Don't think narrowly about an individual person and an individual college, when the problem is social and collectively moral.

10. 22259152 - February 01, 2011 at 09:23 am

In addition to the advice of renaissancehombre, we need to add swords and any other cutting instruments to the need for a mental evaluation before purchase since they have been used in many horrific episodes of insanity.

Mental illness is a fact of life in the same way that physical illness is a fact of life. You cannot control it, but you can take steps to minimize the impact. Suggesting someone seek professional help is warranted but a mandate to seek help does not nor will it ever work. It is just the nature of being human.

11. 3224243 - February 01, 2011 at 09:36 am

Why are colleges/universities more responsible for the actions of their non-residential students than the parents? Loughner's mother and father certainly knew their son was mentally ill and were the only ones in a position to have him involuntarily committed.

12. raywarren - February 01, 2011 at 09:54 am

The most important event in the assaults prompting this discussion is the loss of life and life changing injuries to those attacked. All discussions here are focused on the real and potential attackers, not those violated who can no longer speak for themselves.
Existing laws should have prevented all these assaults, but they did not.
Investigations following the Va Tech attack showed that administrators there misinterpreted the privacy act, and that police should have been informed of Cho's instabilities and he should have been referred to counseling and/or treatment.
Noticeable instabilities and marked abnormal behavior of the attackers have been discovered in all such recent attacks after the fact, including Columbine, Alabama Huntsville and Northern Illinois.
All members of society have the right to a safe environment. There does need to be additional attention paid to threats and aberrant behavior. They need to be carefully evaluated because the people making them are potential attackers.

13. vschwar1 - February 01, 2011 at 10:33 am

there is another important point here that has not been mentioned. those of us in college mental health are very concerned about "threat assesment" teams. if colleges have too low a threshhold for mandating evaluations, treatment or hospitalization, this could have a chilling impact on students coming for help. students are less likley to come for help or to consult about others who they may be worried about if they do not trust that the system has their best interest as the primary concern.
for a detailed discussion of a different approach to these issues see notes of a recent conference at:http://winter2010.aciajj.org/

14. swish - February 01, 2011 at 11:39 am

You are right about that, vschwar1. We do this now in elementary and secondary schools. We used to tell students to talk about their anger, or write about it, or draw about it. Now a student who does any of those things can get a HUGE undesired response. As a result, the new advice to students is: smile, trust no one, keep it to yourself. Wonderful recipe for mental health.

15. 12080243 - February 01, 2011 at 02:14 pm

Here's a problem. A couple of faculty who caught administrators and involved faculty plagiarizing accreditation documents asked for a dialogue about their observations. What they got was dismissed from teaching, service and research and banned from the building of their offices. A mobbing commenced and dangerous/mentally unstable were the charges against the faculty. The president insisted on a mental health evaluation before allowing them the teach again. One of the many telltale signs of the misuse of the accusation of dangerous/mentally disturbed was that the president did not ban the professors from the other parts of the campus, but only the building that housed their offices. The absurdities did not end there and neither did the abuse of the faculty. It was the perfect accusation. To make a long story short, once the accusations were made the damage was irretrievable and took on a life of its own.

A story in CHE today made a point that "terrorism" has a very long history. It's not new. Neither is the hysteria associated with mindless murders like Tucson, Virginia Tech, etc. It's also not new that thoughtless "solutions" become opportunities for corrupt colleagues and administrators. Be careful, be smart or you'll wind up creating significant injustice and promoting corruption, all the while mass murders will continue.

16. grendel - February 01, 2011 at 02:59 pm

I'll probably get a lot of grief for this, but I think most people can tell the difference between a violent person and an odd one. If a person's friends and parents are concerned for their own safety, if they put a lock on someone's room at night and hide the knives from them, if teachers are deeply concerned about the safety of other students.... that just isn't the same thing as someone with mild Tourettes or whatever who is acting a little weird. People can, in fact, usually tell the difference. Isn't there any room for common sense in this call for individual rights? Does a person really have to hurt someone before action is taken? Does the community have no rights at all, including the right to live?

I lived in New York City for 10 years and sat next to many muttering and odd people on the subway, but it was only one memorable woman who informed me that she was going to "cut off my skin and wear it like a fur coat" that I thought should be institutionalized. And frankly, I doubt that anyone who came into contact with that particular woman would disagree with me, including her friends and family.

17. becauseisaidso - February 01, 2011 at 03:44 pm

And what about the risk to the person who "rats out" the student? Suppose you hear a mild, nonspecific statement from a student about his inclinations toward aggression--not directed at anyone, just that he struggles with impulses. You turn him in, per the campus rhetoric. In my institution, that means the Public Saftey folks (campus cops); only after going through them does the student name get sent to a Threat Assessment Committee. What are the cops gonna do? In order to assess the threat, they have to accost the student. No matter how "sensitively" this is done, the student knows somebody told the cops on him and now he has to defend himself against the allegation of being "a risk". Suppose you are the only person he told? Suppose he is a risk? Who is the number one person he will be angry at? Those who would report a student are being asked to put an awful lot of faith in the clinical acumen of the campus police--who knows what their level of professional skill might be? Who knows if the report will remain anonymous? Now the only slightly paranoid/alienated student has been labelled and called out by the system, reating even more alienation and anger...there is harm and risk created in this process that we are not considering in our identification soley with the shooting victims.

18. matthewhamilton - February 01, 2011 at 08:20 pm

Is isolation something that was meant to make this young person less likely to indulge his violent urges?

19. francishamit - February 06, 2011 at 05:57 pm

For what it's worth, campus police officers are not security guards of uncertain skill, but POST certified and sworn police officers. This is required by Federal Law. But all security training includes a course in "Verbal Judo" which might also be called "how to deal with crazy people". The security officer or cop on the beat is the actual first line of defense against any terrorist act.

No, they can't access people the way a trained psychiatrist can, but they can document and report their behavior. And usually have enough training and experience to know when to call for additional help. That they take the time and trouble to do so should be heeded and acted upon immediately.

20. physicsprof - February 08, 2011 at 11:19 pm

"But part of the rise in required evaluations is the self-justifying growth of an apparatus that has not been proved to make anyone safer, and that may expose many students to harm."

Can't agree more with Professor Reiss.

It is imperative to be aware of the history lessons here. Those who are willing to entrust an ounce of their civil liberties to the practitioners of psychiatry should at least take a quick glance through the wikipedia article on "Punitive psychiatry in the Soviet Union".

21. navydad - February 09, 2011 at 07:48 pm

"For what it's worth, campus police officers are not security guards of uncertain skill, but POST certified and sworn police officers."

Actually, campus security officers at most private schools are not sworn police officers, they do not have the authority to arrest people or put them on psychiatric holds, and they do not carry weapons.

22. francishamit - February 09, 2011 at 08:19 pm


"most private schools"? Any institution that accepts Federal Funds is supposed to adhere to that standard. It is surprising the number of people who think, that because an officer is employed by a small private college they aren't possibily police officers with the same training and authority as a street cop.

Richard Jewell, the officer who was wrongly accused of being the Olympic Park bomber in 1996, is a case in point. He was dismissed from Piedmont College for doing his job. As a sworn officer he could not ignore the laws against drunk driving and stay true to his oath of office. The college president who fired him was from another state where perhaps the standards were different. Jewell was not exactly a recruiting poster officer in appearance or articulation but he had graduated in the upper fourth of his class from the Georgia Police Academy.

That same college president was the same guy who called the FBI about him and his "spotty work record" when Jewell became a hero for saving dozens of people from the effects of the bombing. Jewell was mobbed by the media and was the victim of some of the worst reporting in recent history; called a "cop wantabee" when he was a cop, and a good one, all along. It ruined his life for quite awhile.

So maybe the point is not that some campus security officers are insufficently trained but that they should all be training to POST and be sworn, whether or not they carry a gun. Of course some people will object to the expense, but they always do, perfering to ro;l the dice until there is a real tragedy. Security is about prevention.

And I've seen more than one friend in the protective services lose a job because some beancounter asked "Why do we have all this security? Nothing ever happens around here."

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